Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Threat from Within [EWTN, Mother Angelica, & the USCCB]

By Raymond Arroyo

Word had reached EWTN that Mother was being derided as a schismatic, "a proud and disobedient nun" acting in defiance of the bishops. Bill Steltemeier and others believed that the statements originated not with the bishops themselves but with officials at the United States Catholic Conference, the bishops' bureaucratic entity in Washington, D.C., piloted by clerics and laymen.

Tension between Mother Angelica and the bishops conference was inevitable. The same year she founded EWTN, the U.S. bishops launched their own foray into cable television: the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America.

CTNA was a for-profit satellite-distribution network chartered to provide Catholic programming to diosceses around the country. At the time, it was the most expensive project ever undertakn by the bishops, carrying a price tag of $4.5 million in start-up costs alone. Through the sale of specialized services like teleconferencing, and by levying an annual five-thousand-dollar fee on network affiliated, CTNA intended to be self-sustaining in three years' time. Where EWTN went directly to viewers via cable, CTNA could be seen only by local bishops - or at least those bishops willing to expend capital on a receiving dish.

Getting 370 bishops to agree on magisterial teaching was difficult enough, but getting them to agree on what constituted Catholic programming was nearly impossible. To resolve the impass, the bishops created a gatekeeper system, whereby they could individually control programming decisions. Diocesan affiliated received the daily CTNA feed; then the local bishop would determine which if any programming merited broadcast on his station.

"It was a flawed design from the start," Father Robert Bonnot, who later became president and CEO of CTNA, told me. "The irony of it was they were concerned about gatekeeping their own network, and here was this nun in Alabama who could care less what the bishops wanted to have happen. Clearly, she was going out and doing what she needed to do to get on cable systems. CTNA was not free to do that.

The running the bishop's network quickly realized that cable was the place to be, but Mother Angelica was already there. She ewas "the Catholic personality on the scene, much more than the bishops" in the opinion of Father Bonnot. This prominence diverted potential CTNA resources to EWTN and established a Catholic center of power and influence independent of the bishops' conference, fueling animosity. Privately, Mother and those in her camp feared CTNA's entery into the cable arena. After all, how many Catholic networks would the marketplace support or tolerate?

Publicly, Angelica dismised what she called the "grossly exaggered" rivarly between the two networks. "[CTNA] is a diocesan network [beaming] directly to dioceses - programs are scrambled for an exclusive audience," she told the Los Angeles Times. "Our programs are free and go directly to the people in their homes. It's like comparing the Los Angeles Times to the candy shop."

Acknowledged or not, the rivarly existed and battle lines formed. In the Summer of 1981, a full year before CTNA actually began broadcasting, Richard Hirsh, the secretary of communications for the bishops conference, suggested in an interview that EWTN represented a "needless duplication" of Catholic media efforts. He went on to lament the fact that there was "no official contact with [Mother Angelica' whatsoever."

"I have absolutely no problem with the bishops," Angelica explained to a reporter. "I do not feel obligated to render an account to the USCC which is a lay entity." Announcing her network plans, she wrote a letter directly to every bishop in the United States, asking them to suggest activities in your diocese that you would like to see broadcast on EWTN." Flouting the bishops' bureacratic apparatus in Washington did not exactly endear the nun to the USCC staff. One anonymous USCC cleric opined in the Catholic press, "Cloistered nuns should stay in their monasteries and not get involved in stuff like this."

1 comment:

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